Who Dat?

Back in the 80s, long before the X-Games existed, Tom Haig traveled the world as an extreme athlete. He visited more than 50 countries as an international high diver, doing multiple somersault tricks from over 90 feet.

That life came crashing down one Sunday morning in 1996. While training on his mountain bike, he smashed into the grill of a truck and became paralyzed from the waist down. But less than a year later he completed a 100-mile ride on a hand-cycle and traveled by himself to Europe and the Middle East.

Since then he has continued to travel the world as a consultant, writer and video producer. He spent six months launching a Tibetan radio station in the Himalayas and shot documentary shorts on disability in Bangladesh, France, Albania, Ghana and most recently Nepal.

Friday, January 15, 2010

90.4 Tashi Delek FM!

Five days after arriving in Dharamsala, ten days after arriving in India, 60 days after arriving in Charlottesville, 85 days after leaving Oregon, 18 months after graduating from the Murrow School, and four and a half years after I got the craw in my shorts to become a broadcaster, I sat down to my first job in my now chosen field.

Of course is wasn’t as simple as driving to work and sitting down in front of a microphone. My commute was only three miles, but it was three of the craziest miles one could imagine. I thought I would roll to work everyday, but since I needed my computer at both work and home, I accepted the offer for a driver from Phuntsok Dorjee, my new boss and the head of 90.4 Tashi Delek FM.

A View of McLeod Ganj from Forsyth Ganj.

I’d been exchanging emails with Phuntsok for weeks and upon meeting him earlier in the week, found him to be both competent and affable. He’d taken on the radio project three years earlier but. due to very strict and cumbersome Indian communication regulations, was only able to get a license and start broadcasting in October.

The three years Phuntsok labored getting permission to mount a radio station was nothing compared to the decades that Indian free-speech advocates suffered through to open up airwaves to the private sector. India has had radio since the late twenties, but only granted it’s first private license in 2000. Before that you could switch on a radio and everything on the FM dial from 90 to 96 would be one government channel. Everything from 96 to 100 another – and so forth.

Since 2000, at the insistence of some major players in the global communications industry, the government has been selling frequencies for huge sums and the private owners have been making a killing on advertising. The new radio giant, Big FM, has huge 20,000 watt stations in all the big cities: Delhi, Calcutta, Mumbai, Madras, Bangalore. They had enormous sums of cash and expertise to rely on and it’s been a tremendous success for them.

But this left the small community radio entrepreneur out in the cold. In the rural regions of the country they had no one to create and broadcast local content. This left enormous populations lacking in free health, agriculture, and legal information. TV is almost all national, low literacy restricts them from reading newspapers and very few of them own computers or have internet connections.

So in 2006 the government opened up licensing to local rural agencies who could both come up with enough gear to open a station , and also wade through the still tedious process of Indian bureaucracy (locals call it 'license raj'). I’m not saying running a democracy of over a billion people is easy, but if they’d just loosen up the leash they’d find the dog knows where it’s going.

One kind of rural agency the government was looking for were schools. The Tibetan Children’s Village might not only be the best college prep school in the Himalayas, it’s also the centerpiece of an international network of TCV’s. If Phuntosk could wait out the license procedure, he had plenty of Tibetan connections to muster up the gear and expertise. He also had the backing of the TCV for studio space.

Finally in September the license came though and all the wires started getting plugged in. By the time October came around it was time to flip the switch and start broadcasting from 90.4 Tashi Delek FM!

Only one problem: They had no idea what to broadcast!

They had a bunch of music and a bunch of recordings of the Dalai Lama’s teachings, but they did not have the money for either an Indian or western music license. They also had nobody who knew how to speak or what to say on the radio. They were required by the license to develop local interest content, but didn't know where to start. Basically they needed a Com-school moron and through my brother, Dan, they found me.

But I’m in a goddamn wheelchair and that’s a huge pain in the ass for them which brings me back to the commute. The TCV has a couple of cars and a driver and one of them, Suresh, was dedicated to me. Suresh drove up to the Pema Thang guest house and the two of us figured out how to get both myself and my gear (computer, sound board, mics, daily bag, wheelchair) into his 4 x 4. There was plenty of room in the back for the gear (the truck doubles as a school bus sometimes) but the passenger seat was a good foot above my chair. I tossed my right leg in the car, grabbed the handle on the roof and did a one-arm pull-up, while Suresh shoved my ass in the seat. Luckily the rig had seat belts (very few Indian vehicles had them in 2000 – now they all do) because I was going to need them.

Suresh isn't 'my driver'. Sometimes he's the school bus driver too!

We pulled out from the Pema Thang and caught a few hundred yards of open road before coming into the main market streets of McLeod. Suresh slithered through the morass of monks, cows, vegetable stands, shoe shiners, and chai vendors until we came upon the old bus stop and our choice of roads to take to the TCV. Suresh made a call on his cell and discovered the low road through the town of Forsyth Ganj was jammed, so we opted for the slower, riskier high road. We buzzed unscathed through some thick forest until we arrived at the neighborhoods in Upper Dharamsala leading up to the TCV. These twisty tight roads took us up steep, but populated ridges until we came to Holy Dall Lake, which unfortunately was drained so that it could be dug deeper and cleaned (it was pretty nasty back in the day).

This was also the entrance to the TCV, but we weren’t going to the school. We were going to the studio on the second floor of Gmeiner Memorial Hall, a 1000 seat auditoruim built in 1990 for school functions. That meant a quarter mile diversion along something that used to resemble a road, but is now just mountain of rubble. Up to that point I thought that, with a couple weeks of training , I could actually make my way up the the TCV. But now I could see that even if I got in marathon shape (it’d only been 8 weeks since DC!) there’s no way I would ever be able to navigate the last stretch – they would have to send a car down for me just to go the last quarter mile.

The TCV hoops court. How the hell are you going to concentrate on a free throw with that backdrop?

Finally Suresh pulled in front of the Hall and I met my co-worker, the station manager of 90.4 Tashi Delek FM, Kalsang Tsewang. Kalsang plays in one of the hottest local bands, who were on enough of a hiatus that he could take this gig running the station. He’s great with the soundboard and the recording software so he was a natural for the job. Kalsang and Suresh lifted me up the three steps to the entrance, then we came up on the 15 steps up to the studio. I knew they had a wify set up, so I told them I could just work downstairs. They wanted no part of it. They lifted me up the fifteen stairs (something they’ve done for three weeks now) and showed me to the studio.

Doesn't look like something you would see in the Himalayas does it? Tibetans just rock when it comes to tech stuff.

I was as far away from home as I could possibly be, but when I saw the computers, the board and the mic – I felt right at home. As a matter of fact, I was more freaked out when I rolled into the studios of KUGR in Pullman, Washington. This time, I knew what to do and it felt great.

Kalsang flipped on the mic, I rolled up and said, “You're listening to 90.4 Tashi Delek Fm broadcasting from the Tibetan Children’s Village in Dharamsala, India. Now back to some Tibetan music….”

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